' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Yellow Sky (1948)

Friday, October 13, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: Yellow Sky (1948)

William Wellman’s 1948 western “Yellow Sky” is half a good movie. That’s true of many movies, really, though rarely have I seen a half-good movie so exact in its demarcation line between good and bad, literally etched in a character’s face. That character is Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck), barely breaking a sweat as he and his gang rob a bank to open the film, only to sweat a lot as they are forced to make an escape across the salt flats of Death Valley. “Saves us the trouble of hanging ‘em,” observes one of the cavalrymen giving chase who chooses to let them go. Rather than perish in the desert, however, Stretch and his band of outlaws eventually stumble upon a ghost town. Exhausted and thirsty, barely able to focus their eyes, standing on a derelict main street before a collapsed sign heralding “Yellow Sky, the fastest growing town in the territory,” Wellman’s movie momentarily suggests a proto-acid western, almost dream-like. Or maybe it resembles something closer to western noir, given how Wellman and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald utilize the setting for all manner of shadows, jagged angles and beguiling close-ups (see above) that evince as much tension as the brewing situation itself, one to do with the town’s lone inhabitants, an aged prospector (Robert Arthur) and his daughter Mike (Anne Baxter), sitting on a cache of gold that Stretch and his men determine to take for themselves.

As the race for the gold heats up, and even a group of Apache Indians swarm main street, “Yellow Sky” reverts to a more traditionalist mode. Indeed, Mike’s real name is Constance Mae, and as a photo of a woman in a dress and hat affixed to her wall suggests, there is a struggle here between tomboy and being proper, to quote Alma Burke. The real Pygmalion, though, turns out to be Stretch. Peck isn’t exactly an ugly duckling in his whiskers and bandana, but once he shaves midway through and changes his shirt, the character’s identity changes too, all the more conspicuous given how little Peck modulates his performance. One minute he’s Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” the next he’s Henry Fonda in “My Darling Clementine,” and by the end, when he’s literally returning the money he stole at the movie’s start, it really did feel like an acid western. Am I dreaming this?

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